Hurricane Sandy and Emergency Preparedness (Blog)

Competing self-congratulations by political and utility company leaders - about how wonderfully they and the "first responders" performed in the wake of Sandy's floods and power outages - serve to hide very serious and dangerous failures to anticipate, prevent or adequately prepare for such events. Yet pinpointing those failures is as important as helping those suffering now because we might then identify the corrective steps needed to prevent more such suffering in the future.
Given the fact that hurricanes - let alone when combined with other storm systems such as this one - can and often do generate tidal surges, and given that NYC has low-lying land adjacent to sea water (that has shown its dangers before, e.g. hurricane irene last year), it would have been minimal prudence to undertake the sorts of anticipatory, preventive preparation  that Con Ed and the city leaders and the Red Cross and related agencies failed to do. To give a few examples I can think of (and I am no emergency planner):
  1. There should have been fleets of trucks with fuel, electric generators, and basic food and medicines parked on the edges of the city ready and able to move where needed once water and power loss problems were clear
  2. There should have been plans to close off some portion of major thoroughfares to all but busses since they, unlike subways, are not so vulnerable to water or electricity problems and there should have been fleets of busses available and lists of drivers within walking distance or still-functioning transport systems who could have been gathered to provide bus transportation when other forms were knocked out. With car traffic limited, these busses could have kept major city activities functioning by moving huge numbers of people efficiently between Monday and Friday of this last week.
  3. Teams of public service workers should have been trained, prepared and assembled ready to scatter through the affected areas - where concentrations of people had lost movement and communication capabilities - so they could identify emergencies and deal with them (from getting pregnant women to facilities for giving birth, to securing medications for people unable to access them, to first-aid administration and so on).
  4. Walls/barriers/etc where water levels are dangerously high relative to housing and buildings; alternative power trunk lines above ground that can be activated when below-ground lines are compromised; rules preventing real estate developments too close to low-lying areas; permanently installed and regularly tested pumping equipment in subway and other tunnels to speed water removal when all else fails; etc.
Given estimates now that damage to NYC alone will run $18 billion or more, the cost of everything listed above would be a very small fraction of that and provide protection against such storms into the future.
Because those leaders and agencies prefer to celebrate heroism of "first responders" (in quotation marks because the first responders are usually fellow citizens, not agency workers) - and thereby celebrate themselves as "those in charge" - they repress discussion of all that failed to have been done in anticipatory, preparatory prevention. And that risks missing the chance, by identifying failures, to take the steps now to prevent such failures in the future. Its like medicine: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Rather than heaping praise on fine surgery, how about focusing on preventive steps so the surgery wont be needed? Surgeons may worry about that approach but all the rest of us should cheer it. And that means committing to have the personnel - public employees - available to do the planning and the preparation. Gutting the government undermines the only effective response to social dangers like storms, namely a socially planned and coordinated preventive strategy to avoid calamity as well as a preplanned social response if and when calamity strikes.

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